Robert Lee Johnson’s days on Earth have not been marked by high achievement, but the 34-year-old construction worker can hold a grudge with the best of them. He was drinking on Super Bowl Sunday last year when he got to talking about how gamblers at the Sweetie Pettie Dewdrop Inn had done him wrong.
“They suckered me out of my money” is how Johnson phrased it later. He used to shoot dice at the tavern, perched on a country road about an hour south of Nashville. That was years ago, but thinking about it still made him boil.
The Sweetie Pettie is owned by a black man. Johnson and his friends, who are white, went from grousing about a grievance with gamblers to spouting off about black folk in general, particularly about black men going with white women. One thing led to another. Before long, they’d decided it was payback time.
Churches burned that night. Flames licked at the heavens.
Since January, it’s been payback time somewhere in the South at a rate of about once a week. That’s how regularly a black church has been bombed, burned or vandalized, according to figures compiled by the Atlanta-based Center for Democratic Renewal.
The 200 federal agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the FBI who have been assigned to investigating these incidents are focusing on solving more than 30 church burnings over the last 18 months. But the center, which monitors racial hate crimes, says the number of churches that have been attacked tops 80 when vandalism is included.
The phenomenon is not new. “There’ve been attacks on black churches ever since there’ve been black churches in this country,” said C. Eric Lincoln, professor emeritus of religion at Duke University in North Carolina.
But few people paid much attention until Jan. 8. That is when a multiracial church in Knoxville, Tenn.--at which a Green Bay Packers star was an associate pastor--was burned and spray-painted with racial slurs. Authorities noticed that there had been a sharp increase in the fires and started to look for connections.
If there is a regionwide conspiracy, it has eluded investigators.
For every Ku Klux Klansman who allegedly burned a church under orders, there is a pyromaniac, like the volunteer fireman in Alabama who only liked to watch things burn. Some arsonists struck on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday with clear racial intent; others--like the troubled 13-year-old girl whom authorities suspect in a recent North Carolina blaze--may not have been motivated by race at all.
The results, however, are the same: emotional devastation, the destruction of sacred places, the escalation of racial resentment.
“This is the most serious thing that I think has happened in the South in years--far more serious than the dollar value of a church building that is burned,” said Morris Dees, co-founder of the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks race crimes. “Symbolically, the church is more important than the World Trade Center bombing,” he said.
When Timothy Welch was a child, growing up near rural Bloomville, S.C., a black woman who attended Macedonia Baptist Church used to look after him. He played with black children from the church.
“He used to climb the tree right outside the church,” said Jesse Young, a church member and sergeant in the sheriff’s department. “There was an oak tree there. He’d look in through the windows and listen to the services.”
For this reason, and because Welch had always seemed friendly, Young was shocked last year when the 23-year-old white man was arrested and charged with burning down the sanctuary. Welch carried a card that identified him as a klansman.
“I’ve talked to him many times since he was incarcerated,” the sergeant said. “He was very sorry that it happened, from what he told me. He said that they were ordered to do it. That’s what he said--that they had to do it. He never went into who ordered him.”
The parishioners at the little cinder-block church had been subjected to a steady drumbeat of intimidation for months leading up to the torching, which occurred almost exactly a year ago. The Klan held rallies in a field across the street from the church. Worshipers would hear their racist rants during services.
Reportedly, the Klan leader sometimes railed against black churches, saying they were where black people learned how to get government assistance.
The Rev. Jonathan Mouzon reported the incidents to the sheriff, who said he couldn’t stop the rallies because they were on private property. He promised to talk to the klansmen about the noise.
Not long after that, church members found a KKK poster tacked to the door. Then the church was burned.
A woman who lived in a nearby trailer notified authorities and then called Mouzon to tell him of the fire. The preacher sped to the church, thinking that he and several members might be able to snuff out the flames. “I had no idea that the church would be totally engulfed,” he said. “When I got about a mile from the church, I could see the flames.”
Welch and Christopher Gary Cox, 22, were arrested within days and charged with setting that fire and also with torching a black church in nearby Greeleyville the previous night. They also were charged with beating and stabbing a black man they’d chosen at random after spotting him waiting for a bus.
A lawsuit filed June 7 on behalf of the Macedonia Baptist Church by the Southern Poverty Law Center alleges that the klansmen were acting as agents of the Christian Knights of the Ku Klux Klan when they went on their rampage. Using a strategy that has been successful in similar cases of racial terror, the lawsuit attempts to hold the organization financially responsible for the racist actions of its members.
Dees said he is considering filing similar lawsuits in cases in Louisiana and Tennessee, where the church arsons appeared to be part of an organized effort.
The New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights says it is considering using a similar tactic in cases in Tennessee, South Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi.
Randolph Scott-McLaughlin, vice president of the constitutional rights center, said he hopes the lawsuits will show that at least some of the fires were the result not of individual actions but of organized terrorism.
Too frequently, he said, authorities have been content with the arrest of one or two people.
Until President Clinton recently began to speak out about the fires, black ministers and their advocates were complaining that the government wasn’t doing enough. Some are heartened by his recent actions--which include creation of a special task force that is to report on progress in solving the crimes and White House support of a bill to make it easier to prosecute people who attack houses of worship.
Others still say the authorities aren’t working hard enough.
“In New York City, when the World Trade Center was bombed, a piece of scrap metal was enough to indict 10 men--that’s how vigorous that investigation was,” said Scott-McLaughlin. “Similarly, in the Oklahoma City bombing, they had suspects within weeks, if not days. Why haven’t we seen those types of investigations with the church bombings? I guess they’re waiting until some black people are killed in the fires before they begin to investigate vigorously.”
One lawsuit the center might file is in Clarksville, Tenn., northwest of Nashville, where a neo-Nazi group waged a short-lived reign of terror in 1994 with the professed aim of driving African Americans out of the county.
Two homes and a black lodge were burned. John Jason Bakenhus, 23, recruited high school and middle-school boys into his group, threatening to kill them if they squealed. In grand jury testimony, the boys said Bakenhus told them he planned to commit murders.
No churches were burned, but officials arrested Bakenhus during a stakeout in which they conducted surveillance of black homes and churches on a night when they expected him to strike again.
Scott-McLaughlin speculates that it was only a matter of time before the group, which called itself the White Aryan Faction, graduated to burning churches.
Although the leader and two members of his group were convicted and ordered to pay restitution, Scott-McLaughlin says the prosecution did not work hard enough to determine if other members of the organization had carried out terrorist acts.
“They never really targeted the White Aryan Faction or the other juveniles who were members of the campaign,” he said.
His criticisms do not stop at the local level. He urges stronger penalties for burning churches and complains that Clinton was too slow to take a strong public stand.
“There’re a lot of discontented, angry white males out there,” he said, offering an explanation for the increase in church burnings. Citing a political climate full of anti-affirmative-action and anti-welfare rhetoric, he added: “The black community has become the scapegoat for the pressures and dislocations that are being felt in the larger U.S. economy.”
Calling the perpetrators “cowardly domestic terrorists,” Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun (D-Ill.) submitted a resolution Wednesday condemning the fires and declaring the investigation and prosecution of those responsible “a high national priority.”
While she said in an interview that she thought authorities are now doing everything they can to stop the arsons, she said she planned to speak with Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin about complaints that ATF agents had been insensitive in their dealings with the victims of the fires.
Dallas County sheriff’s Deputy Brett Howard says luck led to the March arrest of a volunteer firefighter who admitted burning a small church, the third of four to be torched in Alabama this year.
Christopher Allen Deer, 19, is an “all-American type kid” from a good family, Howard says. He worked at an auto parts store to help pay his way through community college. But Deer told authorities he also had a fascination with fire.
“We just happened to have been in the area one day when he passed by the fire marshal and an ATF agent in a firetruck going to a fire,” Howard said, explaining how Deer became a suspect. Somebody realized that, in a surprising number of cases, fires in the county had first been reported by Deer, who always said he’d happened upon them by accident.
After reporting the fires, he would speed to the scene to help put them out.
After his arrest, he also admitted that he had set grass fires.
There had been speculation that Deer was a copycat, inspired by other church burnings in the state, but local authorities do not believe Deer burned the Liberty Baptist Church because its congregation was African American.
“He was not trying to burn a black church,” said Howard. “It just happened that the structure that he found in the woods that he believed to be an abandoned church--but that was still being used something like two weeks a month--happened to be a black church.”
Although Deer had no apparent racial or political motive, Duke University’s Lincoln said the black church has been a scorned institution since slavery days.
Initially, the gathering together of black people for services was forbidden. The concern then was that blacks would plot insurrection. “When it was not forbidden, it was proscribed,” he said.
Lincoln said the first recorded torching of a black church occurred in South Carolina in 1822.
Racist whites burned down black churches throughout the South during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s because the structures often were used as meeting places for demonstrators fighting to end segregation or win the right to vote.
When that era ended, the fires did not.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has compiled a list going back to 1989.
Dees, the center’s co-founder, does not think there is a regionwide conspiracy. “There’s some copycatting going on,” he said.
The typical church burner, he said, is a white man who gets angry at a black person--for instance, a black state trooper who has given him a ticket--and takes out that anger by burning a church because rural churches often are isolated and there is little chance of getting caught.
In Dees’ view, the fires won’t stop until large enough rewards are offered to persuade people with information to contact authorities. He recently sent letters to the governors of nine Southern states urging the establishment of substantial reward funds--a minimum of $100,000 in each church arson.
He also sent letters to major church denominations urging the mobilization of an interdenominational effort to help the congregations rebuild.
“During the civil rights days [white church denominations in the South] turned a blind eye,” he said. Their involvement now would show that those days of remaining silent during blatant intolerance are over.
In April, the Christian Coalition, the conservative religious group, offered rewards of $25,000 to anyone who could provide information leading to arrests.
In many ways, the church burnings in Maury County in Tennessee are what Dees would call typical. Drunken white men angry because of grievances against particular black people decided to torch places of worship.
First, Robert Lee Johnson complained about the black gamblers at the Sweetie Pettie Dewdrop Inn who he believed cheated him at dice.
Then Michael Jett recalled the time he’d gone to Knoxville looking for his runaway daughter. He’d seen black men socializing with young white women--pimps and prostitutes, he reckoned.
“That led to conversations about black guys and white girls,” Marc Jett, Michael’s cousin, said in federal court in March as he apologized for what happened next. The men’s anger simply escalated out of control, they all said.
They went out that night and burned crosses in front of two black churches, threw Molotov cocktails inside and set fire to the Sweetie Pettie.
Assistant U.S. Atty. Delk Kennedy said there was no indication any of the three participants belonged to any organized hate group. Nor were they questioned about why they targeted churches.
The men had consumed six cases of beer and taken Valium before they went on their rampage, Kennedy said. By that time, even they were no longer clear about why they were doing it.
But the Rev. Alvin Anderson, the pastor of the Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, the one that sustained the worse damage that night, doesn’t accept drunkenness as an excuse.
Noting how difficult it is to find his church at night and to stay on the curving roads, he said: “If they did that drunk, I’d like to shake their hands.”
The white men returned to the church that night, apparently to see their handiwork, after the fire had been put out. They didn’t realize until they were right upon the church that several members still were at the site. The church members jumped into their vehicles and gave chase, but the arsonists sped away.
“They asked the community and the members of the church for forgiveness,” Anderson said. “We have to do that as Christians, but you know if you do wrong you’ve got to do the time.”
Because of an outpouring of support from whites and blacks in the community, the congregation was able to make the $12,000 worth of repairs in a week’s time. They never missed a Sunday service.
“My concern now is for the other churches that are still suffering, where nothing has been done yet,” Anderson said.